The High Cost of Public Information
Published: February 4, 2006
The Bush administration has made a habit of keeping public information from the very public that owns it. A good example can be found at the United States Department of Education. After dragging its feet for months, the agency has asked a tiny nonprofit group to pay a ruinous sum for information on the impact of a law that bars students who have committed drug offenses from receiving federal grants and loans.
The law, which cuts off former offenders from receiving financial help even when the crimes they committed were minor and long ago, has become a subject of intense debate. Congress recently approved changes that should moderate some of the law's most destructive effects. Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a small nonprofit group, asked the Department of Education to provide a simple state-by-state breakdown of the people who have been denied aid under the law so far. But the department demanded more than $4,000 for this information, an amount the group clearly could not afford. The government argued that the request was not in the public interest and implied that Students for Sensible Drug Policy had some commercial interest in seeking it. These claims are both implausible.
The fee represents an increasingly common tactic that is used by the government to discourage public inquiries. The student group has acquired pro bono representation and filed suit in federal court. Members of Congress could end the battle by requesting the information on the group's behalf. Beyond that, Congress should reinforce the Freedom of Information law — which was meant to prevent this kind of thing in the first place.